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Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

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I love writing about film, and several of my new posts will reflect that.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in 2003  to report on an exhibition of Magnum photos and a screening of the classic film The Misfits at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The connection between the photo agency and the film is explained in the piece, but suffice to say that my main interest was in writing about a film I always admired, even as a kid, when its adult themes were well beyond my years.  But the melancholic work resonated with me even then, perhaps because I so strongly identified with its outsider characters and their vulnerability.  Every time I watch the movie I glean new insights from it.  Of course as I got older I learned that this was the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last that Montgomery Clift made, and that the marriage between Monroe and the film’s screenwriter Arthur Miller was effectively over, all of which lends the performances a tragic certain patina.  Kevin McCarthy, who played Monroe’s husband in the opening scene, was the special guest at the revival screening of The Misfits.  I did an advance phone interview with him and he was just a delight to speak with.  I saw on the news that he passed away the other day.

My friend and fellow Omaha native Gail Levin, a documentary filmmaker, took the measure of the potent forces at work in the film and on the set in her film, Making the Misfits.  Find other posts on this blog about Gail and her work, including her documentary about James Dean.  One of her latest films profiled Jeff Bridges.


Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


It is only fitting a photographic exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum capturing candid moments of movie legends should kick off with a screening of the legendary film The Misfits, a picture resonating with so much of what makes the movies alluring.

From iconic stars who met tragic deaths to an enormously talented writer and director dealing in potent themes to a majestic Western landscape filmed in moody black and white and riddled with rich metaphors, The Misfits has it all. The film, apropos its title, is an evocative tale, sparely and honestly told, about the disenchantment and yearning of drifters and dreamers hanging on to an endangered way of life in the vanishing wild of the Nevada desert. It is a quintessentially American story about pursuing individual freedom and expression in a conformist world and following dreams, even if deferred, with the aid of a star.

Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is presenting, in his usual boffo style, this one-night only tribute to The Misfits on Saturday October 11 in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The doors open at 6 p.m., the event begins at 7 and the film unreels at 7:30.

Among the Crawfordesque touches planned are searchlights, red carpet fanfare, horse riders, a trick roper and reenactors portraying the film’s two stars, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Special guests include actor Kevin McCarthy, who plays Monroe’s jilted husband in the film. McCarthy will speak before the picture. Legendary producer and former Paramount Studios exec A.C. Lyles was also to have appeared, but will instead be presiding at the memorial services of two Hollywood greats that recently passed away, Donold O’Connor and Elia Kazan.

As with past film events (including Ben-HurPsychoKing KongThe SearchersWest Side Story), Crawford’s secured a restored print, from United Artists, for the show.

After the film, audience members may enjoy a cash bar, cash hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the museum’s atrium, get autographs or photos of McCarthy and Lyles and see a sneak preview of the traveling exhibition Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie Making. The exhibition, which runs through January 4, 2004, includes images that a team of photojournalists from Magnum, a renowned, worldwide cooperative photo agency started in 1947 by famed imagemakers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, took during the making of The Misfits. In all, the exhibit displays 111 works by 39 leading photographers culled together from Magnum’s archive of more than one million photos covering the breadth of human endeavor and experience.

For a long time, The Misfits, that elegiac tone poem to the passing of the American Wild, was regarded more as a morbid curiosity than a successful filmic drama. Besides being a psychologically-complex, symbol-filled, post-modern adult Western where the only “action” comes late in the last reel and where the only “hero” is a broken down cowboy in crisis, the movie has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion.

Clark Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away unexpectedly at age 45 in 1966.

Rounding out the supporting cast were dynamic Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, Actor’s Studio veterans with Clift, and powerful character actress Thelma Ritter.

Then there were the on-the-set intrigues that played out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans that wrote and directed The Misfits. The script was authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a SalesmanThe Crucible), the towering intellectual icon of American theater, for his then wife Monroe. Directing the picture was Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese FalconThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Asphalt JungleThe African QueenMoby DickThe Man Who Would Be King), the great maverick adventurer-artist of American cinema.

By all accounts, the collaboration between Miller, Huston and the other artists involved was relatively congenial. Miller, the insular egghead, wore his pensiveness like a badge of honor. Huston, the unabashed sensualist, presided over the set like a lion on the hunt. Monroe, the bright but brittle star, variously charmed and confounded everyone with her child-like persona and neurotic flights of fancy. Gable, the macho, devil-may-care journeyman, bore all the distractions like the true gentleman and professional he was. Clift, the complex, introspective method actor riddled by insecurities, tried fitting into this dysfunctional family.

Adding to the tension were the personal dramas playing out during the project. Gable felt out-of-step with the times given the studio system he became a star in was dying, the pictures he became identified with were not being made anymore and the kinds of rebel parts he built his persona on were going to younger actors.

Hounded by the press since their headline-making marriage a few years before, the unlikely match of the serious writer Miller and the blond bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began shooting. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

In a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks, Calif. home, McCarthy recalled Marilyn’s difficulties in the brief scene they have together in The Misfits. In it, she rushes up the steps of the Reno courthouse where McCarthy, her estranged husband, is hoping she will rethink her decision to divorce him, but instead she brushes him off with the enigmatic line, “You’re just not there.”

What should have been a simple take turned into an ordeal.

“She was having trouble remembering her lines in sequence,” McCarthy said, “and John Huston was getting to the point where he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t hear her. He’d ask, ‘Did she say all her lines?’ And I’d go, ‘No,’ or the guy running the boom would go, ‘No, she’s missing some of the stuff, Mr. Huston.’ She came running up the steps maybe 16 or 17 times. Well, finally, after a lot of procedures and wrangling, they put a microphone underneath my tie and ran a wire up my pants leg, all the kinds of things you didn’t do then…So, I was pinned to the spot where I was standing, and when Marilyn finally said everything, Huston turned the camera around and did a take with me. And I was through with the picture.”

Ironically, McCarthy said,it was a film I reluctantly took because I was too vain to be playing a scene where I was gone in 28 seconds or something like that when my buddies Eli Wallach and Monty Clift were playing full-blooded, fully-written parts.”

The palpable strain caused by Marilyn was made worse with Miller always looking over her shoulder on the set. Then there was the script’s lack of any clearly defined narrative driving force or traditional happy ending and the demands on the players to drop all hint of vanity in portraying a motley crew of losers in emotionally raw scenes rare for that era of American cinema.


Screengrab of movie "The Misfits"




Miller came up with the story, which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine, after an extended stay in Nevada to establish residence in Reno for his divorce from his first wife. Besides the dissolution of his marriage and the bloom of new romance with Monroe, his plays were being dismissed and he was reeling from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, where he’d been called as a witness and refused to name names in the Communist witch hunt proceedings.

It was in Reno where Miller was introduced to similarly displaced persons as himself. Not surprisingly, the three major male figures in the film are cowboys who, as Bruce Crawford puts it, resist “modern civilization encroaching on them and their free-spirited way of life.” Gay (Gable) is an aging, spent, but still gallant horse wrangler, Purse (Clift) a sweet-natured rodeo rider and Guido (Wallach) a cynical war veteran turned bush pilot. The men prefer living a hand-to-mouth existence rather than “work for wages.”

Perhaps projecting himself into the characters, Miller has each stubbornly hold fast to some ideal of freedom and vision of happiness amid this harsh new era reining them in. When Monroe’s nurturing character, Roslyn, comes onto the scene she forms them into a loose family of misfits, each of whom is running away from something or towards something. Perhaps, as Gay says, they’re all trying “to find a way to be alive.” In Roslyn, who awakens promise and desire in the men but ultimately chooses the older Gay, Miller seemed to be imagining a hoped-for reconciliation with Monroe.

Unusual for Huston, The Misfits revolves around a female figure. With the exception of Katharine Hepburn’s turn in The African Queen, no actress so dominates one of his pictures as Monroe does in the part of Roslyn, the human equivalent of the wild mustangs the men try corralling. When, near the end, she expresses disgust at the idea the horses will be sold to the dog food factory, she makes the men question themselves and their methods. In using trucks and a plane to round up the animals for such an inglorious end, the men realize they’ve corrupted the very thing they love.

For Crawford, the denouement is “the end of an era…the end of the West as we once knew it. It’s the last roundup. The cowboys are left knowing they’re going to have to find another way of feeling alive and validating their lives.”

Anyone who knows Huston’s work can see the story echoes the recurrent theme of his pictures — a group of people banded together in search of some prize or goal that proves elusive amid the human conflicts and dramatic fates that arise. And, like much of Miller’s work, the story examines the uneasy gulf between ideals and reality, the challenge of remaining an individual in a corporate era of crushing anonymity and the need for and difficulty of maintaining human-family relationships in a world where people act, by nature, at cross-purposes to each other.

Fateful quests are not only intrinsic to Huston’s work, they operate on more than one level, said Michael Krainak, a professor of film history and appreciation at Metropolitan Community College and the man who headed-up Joslyn’s film series in the 1980s.

“Besides a material quest there’s a spiritual quest. His characters search for meaning in their lives. In many cases not all the characters are aware that is happening. So often, characters like Bogart at the end of Sierra Madre never even benefit from it. They’re oblivious to the changes taking place and to the lessons being learned. Huston equated that to the tenets of the existential philosophers. His films tend to end in material failure because for him the ends are irrelevant.

“What gives the quest meaning is the process itself, and you take something from that or you don’t. The ones who don’t often die physically or spiritually and the ones who do are able to carry on. It’s like Syndey Greenstreet’s great reaction to Peter Lorre when they discover the falcon is immaterial in The Maltese Falcon — ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”

Consistent with Miller’s ideology, The Misfits is replete with references to the impermanence of things.

“Gay speaks a line that’s very Milleresque,” Krainak said. “He says, ‘Well, nothing’s it,’ meaning nothing lasts forever. And Miller seems to be saying, Well, if that’s true, then that’s a guarantee of change. A theme of Miller’s has always been this idea of rebirth and reinventing yourself. The humanistic ideas in Miller’s work that are also evident in Huston’s work is this final goal of self-acceptance. To survive the wreckage of your life by seeking shelter in relationships and, more than anything else, by carving out your own meaning in life. The successful characters in Huston’s movies seem to confront the element of choice, You either choose to live an authentic life or an anonymous life. In this movie, becoming anonymous is to ‘work for wages.’”

In The Misfits Gay finally concedes the passing of his ways, but goes out on his own terms (or sword). He utters a line summing up his defiance and regeneration: “A man who’s afraid to die, is afraid to live.”

At the end, he and Roslyn drive off at night in search of a new path. They look out to see the mare and her colts running free, and they smile. She asks, “How do we get home?” He looks up at the night sky and says, “We’ll follow that star and get there.” As Krainak said, “What they’re left with is the quest — to get back on the trail. Instead of the the sunset, they ride off into the evening star. It’s a very Hustonian ending in that there’s promise for redemption or rediscovery or self-knowledge, but no guarantee.” In Crawford’s mind, “That has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting endings in film history.”

Krainak, a Huston buff, said that for years a running argument among cineastes has centered around the question of whether The Misfits is more a Huston film or a Miller film.

“It’s clearly both, but ultimately I think it’s Huston’s film,” he said. “In typical Huston fashion there’s this physical, larger-than-life task that a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on the edge of society attempt and fate somehow intervenes. In The Misfits it’s not so much tempting fate, as in Greek tragedy, but more of an Anglo-Saxon fatalistic attitude that says, If there’s a worst thing that can possibly happen, it will happen. The Anglo-Saxons had a wonderful word for it — weird. It’s indeterminate. It’s a more modern existential attitude toward fate. The character Guido even says something like, ‘I didn’t know that could happen.’ I think that’s so much what The Misfits is about.”

According to Krainak, the Miller-Huston pairing was more than a philosophical fit, but an artistic one. “One thing Miller’s got in common with Huston is a minimalist approach,” he said. “With Huston it was always a minimalist shooting script, shooting style, choice of film language, use of camera and editing. With Miller it was simple sets, lighting and everything focused on characters. Huston had to work very hard to create a visual dynamic when working so close with the figures of these characters in a setting and landscape that is so specific and very important.”

From his extensive reading about The Misfits, Krainak found Huston, with Miller’s blessing, eschewed color cinematography in order to bring out certain dramatic-symbolic points. “Huston definitely wanted stark black and whites in the background and the setting, with the characters, at least as I interpret it, as the shades of gray. That’s how it plays out in the imagery. It’s really a beautiful black and white film.” The atmospheric photography is by Russell Metty and the neoclassical jazz score is by Alex North.” Krainak added that, unlike most films, The Misfits was shot chronologically in order to capture a sense of “immediacy and spontaneity,” vital qualities in a story about impulsive free spirits.

Krainak said the film came at “a very self-indulgent” point in Huston’s career when, in addition to working with Miller, he was collaborating with such artists as Truman Capote (Beat the Devil), Ray Bradbury (Moby Dick), Jean Paul Sartre (Freud) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). “It was a very psychologically-charged period where he was exploring interior adventures or the landscape of the mind as opposed to exterior adventures or the landscape of nature.”

Why The Misfits was, until recently, dismissed as an interesting failure rather than a singular achievement can be explained by its “dense, cerebral, ‘European’ feel and by its star-crossed history, said Krainak, who puts an intriguing spin on the theory by suggesting “a killing off of a Hollywood era” took place with the deaths of  Monroe, Gable and Clift and with the way Huston and Miller “underplayed these icons.”

He explained, “These were aging, wounded icons. Monroe was so vulnerable. Gable completely falls apart in a scene that everybody refers to. Clift takes a bad fall and wears bandages the rest of the film. Their audiences were not used to seeing them that way. What Huston and Miller did with these stars was a precursor of the American cinema renaissance of the late 1960s. The drama, thanks to Miller’s screenplay, and the imagery, thanks to Huston’s direction, made it a film dominated by character as opposed to pure action or star persona.”

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